Want a possibly higher budget for the Commission on Human Rights? One condition, said House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez: let Chairman Chito Gascon resign.
This was according to CHR Commissioner Gwendolyn Pimentel-Gana who met with him prior to the budget deliberations at the House of Representatives.
"He just expressed, of course his feelings, the same way as he said in public that he intends to pursue the P1,000 budget for the CHR," she told reporters on Tuesday, September 12. "He did mention that if the Chair would step down, probably the budget would be increased or given to the CHR."
On Tuesday, 119 legislators in the Lower House voted in favor of giving the Philippines’ national human rights institution a measly P1,000 while 32 legislators voted against it. They acted on the motion by SAGIP Representative Rodante Marcoleta. (READ: House budget debates: CHR gets only P1,000 for 2018)
The House-approved budget is way below what the Commission originally proposed: P678 million. The proposal was approved by the Senate finance committee on Monday, September 11.
Gascon, however, is standing his ground and is not giving up his position which he will hold until May 2022. He can be replaced only through impeachment.
“The principal reason why I cannot resign my office is to do so will weaken the institution itself,” he explained.
Prevent being at the ‘mercy of politics’
Heeding the calls to resign continuously made by the allies of President Rodrigo Duterte will put the CHR “at the mercy of politics.” (READ: CHR chairman should resign – Panelo)
“Under the set of circumstances where the Congress would respond to an independent constitutional office this way and to threaten it with a reduction in its budget on the pretext of asking me to resign would lead to essentially making the institution forever at the mercy of politics,” Gascon said.
Alvarez has aggressively threatened to slash the budget of the Philippines’ national human rights institution. The House Speaker previously slammed the Commission for allegedly not doing its job.
"Wala akong makitang dahilan para sustentuhan kayo ng gobyernong ito," he said during CHR’s budget briefing on August 7. "Sino ba nagpapasuweldo sa inyo? 'Di ba ang estado? Eh ang lagi mo pinupuna ang estado, pero sila naman ay pinoprotektahan ang karapatan ng mga biktima. Ikaw, anong ginagawa mo, ang protektahan ang mga kriminal?"
(I do not see any reason for the government to fund the CHR. Who pays your salary? The state, right? But you always criticize the state, which protects the rights of victims. But you, what do you do, protect criminals?)
The CHR has been the target of the tirades of President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies as it continues to call out the rising number of killings – more than 3,500 according to police data – in his bloody war on drugs. (READ: 'Demonizing' human rights in the first year of Duterte)
Created via the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the CHR is tasked to investigate allegations of human rights abuses by state actors such as the military or police.
“We are supposed to be insulated from politics so that we can perform our mandate in accordance with what the Constitution wants us to do,” Gascon said.
Expected only 20
House members who were against the proposed CHR budget slash, including its sponsor, Cebu City 1st district Representative Raul del Mar, had always been vocal against the idea.
These legislators – a mix of majority, minority, and opposition bloc members – knew it was a tough fight ahead. The House, composed mostly of “supermajority” members allied with Duterte, was more than likely to follow the House Speaker without question.
Through viva voce voting, nayes (those against slashing the budget) seemed to have outnumbered the ayes (those in favor of slashing the budget). This was the argument of at least one legislator who tried to argue through the microphone.
But House Deputy Speaker and Ilocos Sur 2nd district Representative Eric Singson said the “ayes” had it, to the uproar of those against the motion.
Eventually, lawmakers were asked to stand up to express their vote for or against the measure. A legislator, who voted against the budget slash, said this was when they truly lost.
Many lawmakers who were against the P1,000-budget through viva voce voting literally became silent and instead chose to abstain. Still, that at least 32 rose to oppose the majority move was a surprise to legislators who supported the CHR. They expected only 20 to rise.
The decision by legislators, however, does not mean that the Commission will get only the small amount for the coming fiscal year. The budget will still go through another round of deliberations in the Senate. (READ: Slides and Ladders: Understand the budget process)
Facing the measly amount given by the House of Representatives, the CHR hopes that “reason, necessity, and rational minds will prevail both in the Senate and in the bicameral committee.” – with reports from Bea Cupin/Rappler.com
Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.